19 Dec 2011

Today’s gaming enthusiast is older than you think, finds Open University research

A research participant in the OU's technology labs

A research participant in the OU's technology labs

Those struggling to think of a last-minute Christmas gift for their middle-aged relatives might be intrigued to know they may prefer a digital game this year, rather than a nice pair of slippers.

Research carried out by a PhD student at The Open University, into how people engaged with digital games, found that the age of those who play and enjoy these games is not typically a 20-something playing games like Call of Duty. Rather, research student Jo Iacovides, 28, found that the demographics are changing among game enthusiasts. She studied how people learn through their involvement with games and carried out a three-stranded approach using email interviews, monitored on-site case studies and questionnaires among a group stretching from 20 to 65.

“One participant I monitored in our labs was a 59-year-old mother, who was reluctant to describe herself as a gamer yet she admitted to enjoying digital games on Facebook and playing collaborative games on the Nintendo Wii with her adult daughter.

“She is getting a lot from them. During one of the observation sessions, she did get a bit overwhelmed by the information and the clues when playing an unfamiliar game. This meant she got to the end of the time limit without completing the task, but after a break she realised she may have worked out the solution and would have liked another go.”

The sessions, carried out in The Open University’s technology labs, involved nine people taking part in two hour-long sessions within a specially-created “lounge” with a sofa and a games consoles.

“People in the lab did get frustrated when they got stuck, and trying again and trying different solutions is all part of the challenge. But if they were unable to figure out a solution or progressed without understanding why, then their involvement with the game was liable to break down as their sense of ‘agency’ would be reduced,” said Jo.

In the questionnaire assessment, among 232 people within the 18-65 age groups who responded to an appeal through The Open University’s website channels, more than 50 per cent admitted to being “moderate gamers”.

“There seemed to be a bit of a stigma attached to admitting to being a serious gamer and, interestingly, people categorised themselves in relation to the hours they spent playing in comparison to others, including stereotypes of hardcore gamers. Yet it is clear the demographic of who is playing is changing, now one in three adults play digital games and it is becoming just another common leisure activity such as watching TV, going to the cinema and listening to music.”

Her study found that breakdowns and breakthroughs – when people did succeed in the game - were crucial to the experience.

“People generally report positive experiences from playing games. They are learning in ways that might surprise us, such as developing patience and perseverance. It was interesting to see how often breakdowns – such as ‘dying’ repeatedly – happen, yet the players keep on going! Perhaps because failure has fewer consequences in the game world, but it is remarkable to observe and see how learning comes out of that failure. You can see how competence could develop from being able to figure out the game.”

Jo suggests that: “Education could learn something from the world of gaming, in terms of the culture around gaming that supports the activity but also in terms of respecting the impact and influence games can have, rather than relegating them to being simple distractions”. Also, she concluded that educational games could pick up useful pointers from the design of commercial ones.

“By looking at how these breakdowns and breakthroughs occur there are potential implications for devising more effective educational games – for instance, by ensuring that the player does feel responsible for figuring out solutions and the consequences of their actions,” she said.

Jo, who is a “gamer” herself in her limited spare time, has already presented her work at several conferences, while the preliminary findings from the questionnaire study are to be published next year in the Journal of Learning, Media and Technology.

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